Both fanfiction and RPF have always existed in some form. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s historical dramas could be considered fanfiction; the Brontë sisters were thought to have written an elaborate role-playing game based on living soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. And even before the first internet chat rooms and listservs, fanfiction existed in notebooks and between friends.
But the role of RPF within fanfiction has always been a complicated one. The site Fanlore.org, a communally sourced history of fanfiction, suggests that RPF has existed since the 1970s but was kept primarily to private listservs for fear of both legal action and retaliation from other fans. In 2002, one of the earliest fanfiction forums, Fanfiction.net, banned all fanfiction involving real people.
That all changed in 2012 with the advent of “Larry Stylinson,” a trend in which writers began romantically paring One Direction band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. “The whole ecosystem of Larry shipping, it kind of opened a floodgate,” says Amanda Brennan, senior content insights manager at Tumblr.
A long time fanfiction writer herself, Brennan is in charge of the platform’s yearly “Fandometrics” report, which provides evidence of RPF’s growing popularity. For instance, between 2016 and 2017, fanfiction about real K-pop stars increased 10 percent on Tumblr; in 2015, Larry Stylinson was the number one “ship” on the site.
Popularity aside, though, plenty of fans and writers can’t stand the genre. “RPF — and by that I mean explicit stories about currently living celebs — is the lowest trash possible to me,” says fanfiction writer Sergey, 30. While he has no issue with historical RPF, he expressed disapproval of writers “who use ‘But they are famous, they have to deal with it!’ as an excuse for being creepy.”
It’s true that there’s no shortage of internet clips where celebrities faced with RPF cringe in response, and most naysayers say writing about living people without their permission is a violation of consent. But a form of RPF about contemporary figures happens all the time in mainstream literature and film. For example, The Social Network, which won dozens of awards, portrayed the inner personal life of Mark Zuckerberg without his permission. For as much as we tend to enshrine the idea of the “rights” to someone’s life, legally there’s not much we can do when they’re violated.
Celebrities’ personas are rarely copyrighted or trademarked, and given that most fanfiction stays unpublished, writers aren’t usually violating laws that prevent using someone’s likeness for promotional materials without their consent. If a publisher or producer does pick up a story — such as in the case of After, Anna Todd’s One Direction fanfiction — getting around those laws can be as simple as changing the characters’ names.
That isn’t to say people haven’t tried to take legal action against RPF. In 2003, FanDomination.net received a cease-and-desist order from baseball player Andy Pettitte’s legal team asking that a story about him be taken down. But once fiction is labeled as such, proving it represents reality is difficult.
Invasion of privacy, the heart of most criticism against RPF, is also hard to prove once something is labeled as fiction. As Stacey Lantagne, law professor at University of Mississippi, asserts, “Online writers do not write stories about Harry Styles in college hoping to trick people into thinking the celebrity Harry Styles is anything like their Harry Styles. Rather, they are engaging in an obvious (and, in fandom circles, familiar) bit of fictional play.”
RPF writers agree. “For me, I tend to have a very clear line in my head,” says Tori, 31, a hockey RPF writer. “I don’t think that [my RPF is] real or that I have some insight into Sidney Crosby or whatever.” Other writers draw the line at writing about regular people — say, a celebrity’s nonfamous girlfriend. “My philosophy is if I wouldn’t stop them on the street for an autograph, then they’re not going in my fic,” says Chloe. “And I never, ever use real-life children in my works, especially if they’re underage.”